They knew, but did nothing
Saturday, March 8, 2008
In this exclusive extract from his new book, Philip Shenon uncovers how the White House tried to hide the truth of its ineptitude leading up to the September 11 terrorist attacks. .
In the American summer of 2001, the nation's news organisations, especially the television networks, were riveted by the story of one man. It wasn't George Bush. And it certainly wasn't Osama bin Laden.
It was the sordid tale of an otherwise obscure Democratic congressman from California, Gary Condit, who was implicated - falsely, it later appeared - in the disappearance of a 24-year-old government intern later found murdered. That summer, the names of the blow-dried congressman and the doe-eyed intern, Chandra Levy, were much better known to the American public than bin Laden's.
Even reporters in Washington who covered intelligence issues acknowledged they were largely ignorant that summer that the CIA and other parts of the Government were warning of an almost certain terrorist attack. Probably, but not necessarily, overseas.
The warnings were going straight to President Bush each morning in his briefings by the CIA director, George Tenet, and in the presidential daily briefings. It would later be revealed by the 9/11 commission into the September 11 attacks that more than 40 presidential briefings presented to Bush from January 2001 through to September 10, 2001, included references to bin Laden.
And nearly identical intelligence landed each morning on the desks of about 300 other senior national security officials and members of Congress in the form of the senior executive intelligence brief, a newsletter on intelligence issues also prepared by the CIA.
The senior executive briefings contained much of the same information that was in the presidential briefings but were edited to remove material considered too sensitive for all but the President and his top aides to see. Often the differences between the two documents were minor, with only a sentence or two changed between them. Apart from the commission's chief director, Philip Zelikow, the commission's staff was never granted access to Bush's briefings, except for the notorious August 2001 briefing that warned of the possibility of domestic al-Qaeda strikes involving hijackings. But they could read through the next best thing: the senior executive briefings.
During his 2003 investigations it was startling to Mike Hurley, the commission member in charge of investigating intelligence, and the other investigators on his team, just what had gone on in the spring and summer of 2001 - just how often and how aggressively the White House had been warned that something terrible was about to happen. Since nobody outside the Oval Office could know exactly what Tenet had told Bush during his morning intelligence briefings, the presidential and senior briefings were Tenet's best defence to any claim that the CIA had not kept Bush and the rest of the Government well-informed about the threats. They offered a strong defence.
The team's investigators began to match up the information in the senior briefings and they pulled together a timeline of the headlines just from the senior briefings in the northern spring and summer:
"Bin Ladin Planning Multiple Operations" (April 20)and "Bin Ladin Threats Are Real" (June 30)It was especially troubling for Hurley's team to realise how many of the warnings were directed to the desk of one person: Condoleezza Rice, the National Security Adviser. Emails from the National Security Council's counter-terrorism director, Richard Clarke, showed that he had bombarded Rice with messages about terrorist threats. He was trying to get her to focus on the intelligence she should have been reading each morning in the presidential and senior briefings
"Bin Ladin Public Profile May Presage Attack" (May 3)
"Terrorist Groups Said Co-operating on US Hostage Plot" (May 23)
"Bin Ladin's Networks' Plans Advancing" (May 26)
"Bin Ladin Attacks May Be Imminent" (June 23)
"Bin Ladin and Associates Making Near-Term Threats" (June 25)
"Bin Ladin Planning High-Profile Attacks" (June 30),
"Planning for Bin Ladin Attacks Continues, Despite Delays" (July 2)
Other parts of the Government did respond aggressively and appropriately to the threats, including the Pentagon and the State Department. On June 21, the US Central Command, which controls American military forces in the Persian Gulf, went to "delta" alert - its highest level - for American troops in six countries in the region. The American embassy in Yemen was closed for part of the summer; other embassies in the Middle East closed for shorter periods. http://www.smh.com.au/news/world/they-knew-but-did-nothing/2008/03/07/1204780065676.html?page=fullpage#contentSwap1